On August, 5, 2022, Professor Dr. Caroline Pauwels died. At 58 years old, she was first and foremost the mother of 2 wonderful children, Emil and Anna Violette. They are in their early twenties. Together with her caring sisters Annette and Bernadette, her mother, family and closest friends, they will miss Caroline dearly. Caroline died of stomach and esophageal cancer, a disease that had been diagnosed almost 3 years ago and which she fought with energy and a strong belief in medicine and science. Newspapers and social media in Belgium, on both sides of the language border, have been filled with obituaries and commentaries from journalists, politicians, colleagues, students, … all of whom honor the contribution that she has made as a professor, the director of research group SMIT and later on rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel to our scientific field, collaboration between universities and other actors in society, cross overs between science and culture, and to societal debates at large. The attention is indicative of the tremendous legacy she leaves behind.
I first met Caroline in 2003. I was in the second year of my bachelor in communication sciences at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Caroline taught a theoretical course covering political economy of communication, cultural studies, and fascinating approaches such as the Frankfürter Schule. I dare say fascinating for all students as Caroline had the gift to bring all of this theoretical chizzle with a flair that appealed even to students that did not have particular scientific aspirations. I still remember the moment she entered the auditorium: on converse sneakers, her trademark footwear (until she became rector of the university, when she adapted her style somewhat ), long before sneakers were fashionable. Black trousers and a shirt. A rather petite person. But radiant. She laughed a lot, I recall. Really a lot. It seemed odd for a professor. Communication was not the dullest department, but, still, we had not witnessed such explicit and unblemished passion and joy when talking about Stuart Hall, Theodor Adorno, Nicolas Garnham, Bernard Miège and Robin Mansell. Caroline became even more passionate when she started to elaborate on Hannah Arendt, the German political philosopher, Holocaust survivor and one of the most influential political theorists of our times. Hannah Arendt was a giant to Caroline, someone who’s thinking inspired her until her very last moments. And she wanted students to encounter Arendt, even if it was not directly relevant to the course she taught. Caroline would probably have denied that such irrelevance was possible. She wrote a full introductory chapter on Hannah Arendt in her Ph.D. on European audiovisual policy. She insisted on it. She pushed through and obtained her Ph.D. in 1995. Professor Jean-Claude Burgelman was her supervisor. He was the founder and director of research group SMIT until 1999 when he joined the European Commission. Many years later, in 2020, Caroline created the Hannah Arendt Institute that brings together different universities and scientific disciplines. The institute aspires to advise policy-makers and everyone in society to make diverse societies more inclusive. The realization was a dream of her come true and is exemplary of her determination and wilfulness.
In my third bachelor we met again. Caroline taught a course on European media policy, again with that drive. I loved it and, by then, was not surprised that even students that did not particularly care about policy, took the course with pleasure. Students always wanted to be around Caroline and she liked being around students. Even as Rector, she bridged the distance between the highest management level of the university and the students in one step. I will come back to this. It had never been seen. And I am not sure that it will be seen again. The year after, I was so happy when she accepted to supervise my master thesis dealing with WTO policies concerning the audiovisual sector. Caroline pushed me and others to reflect on such topics taking an outside-the-box perspective. At the time, in our discipline, it was somewhat bon ton to frame EU and WTO policy making as neoliberal and evil. Scholars somewhat easily dismissed the complexities of European and international policy making as well as the power and responsibility of nation states. Caroline invited us to think differently or at least be open to the idea that these commonly accepted ideas might not be true. That was challenging and fun. Quickly after I obtained my master degree, Caroline became my Ph.D. supervisor and, ever since, we were never out of touch. Not when I became an Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, nor when she became Rector or when I left the university to work at the Flemish public broadcaster VRT as Director of Public Value, Talent and Organisation. Caroline was always supportive of me. She saw me, genuinely saw me and helped me to achieve my dreams. I cannot thank her enough for that. I am grateful I was able to tell her how profound and deep my gratitude is for all that. Of course, the relationship between a supervisor and Ph.D. student changes over the years and finding a balance after finishing your Ph.D. comes with some growing pains. We had our arguments. We talked about that a lot and I found myself saying things to my Ph.D. students that Caroline said to me. We spoke about that with humor.
Allow me to say a few words about what I consider Caroline’s main contributions to our field*. Looking at her research, starting from her Ph.D. thesis which counted over 800 pages (!), Caroline made a manifest choice for, what I would call, a constructive political economy paradigm instead of the dominant critical political economy of the media paradigm. In her work, Caroline has always emphasized that economics and politics are structuring elements in the output of the media sector, and that an active consumer is not the same as a user with actual influence and power. At the same time, she consistently opposed slogans that graft on overly optimistic or negative visions of the information society and digital economy in which we find ourselves. To some extent that view goes back to her time as an intern in the Directorate-General for Competition of the European Commission led by Commissioner Karel Van Miert. She did a great job there and could have opted for an entirely different career path. Second, in her scholarly work Caroline always set out from an explicit humanistic perspective. An introductory chapter on Hannah Arendt in a media studies Ph.D., rarely seen and looked at with wonder by some, provided the foundation for a broader reflection on European audiovisual policy. In all her subsequent work, Caroline emphasized the importance of citizenship in a political, social, and cultural sense. But also citizenship as the possibility to determine and fully define your own life. It is this openess to self-determination, albeit not in a naïve way, that sets Caroline apart from much critical political economy of communication research. Despite structural inequalities, there are also opportunities for emancipation, creativity, diversity and pluralism. As a possibilist, Caroline was convinced of this. Inspired by Swedish physician and statistician Professor Hans Rosling Caroline liked to see herself as a possibilist, someone who studies the facts and, on that basis, develops a worldview that is constructive and useful. Hans Rosling posthumously received a honorary doctorate from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 2019. As such, long before Des Freedman's very insightful operationalization of the concept of power, she inspired the idea of contradiction: under the right circumstances there is always room for change and adaptation of structures. Caroline herself continuously was a driving force behind this, not only in her own research but much more broadly within the university and beyond.
Essentially, Caroline’s scientific oeuvre never started from the intention to search for what is wrong in international, European or Flemish media policy. She refused to accept that the managers of large media companies only think of the bottom line and not in terms of e.g., journalistic quality. She observed, yet opposed, the intrinsic and enduring economic weakness of film or documentary production. Her collected scholarly work was not blind to structural inequalities in media production, aggregation, distribution and consumption. Students who took her courses on national and European media policy and on the major theories in communication sciences know this. Yet, she was not fatalistic in this and saw countermovements. It is this nuance in her research and education that politicians, policy makers and captains of industry are also familiar with, as well as Caroline's great optimism for progress and the urge to do things better. Caroline would call her perspective even critical or self-critical, but never, ever dogmatic and ingrained. Quotes that she often used, including in her teaching, reflected her vision in that area: Francis Picabia's “Our heads are round, so our thoughts can change direction” or Leonard Cohen's “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”.
Vincent Mosco's plea for actionable communication science research in mind, Caroline wanted to change the world. That may sounds somewhat sentimental, corny even. Nonetheless, people who knew Caroline will confirm this: she wanted to make the world a better place. And although many would not take the university as their place of residence for this, it was always the place for Caroline. I admire her for that, more than I can possibly express in this obituary. As a believer in the project that the universitas stands for, a sanctuary of ideas and free speech, Caroline coached a generation of researchers and professionals in her school of thought: Yes, we can! Those researchers ended up at various universities, also outside Belgium in countries such as Brazil, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Spain. Scholars who are not satisfied with easy policy analyses but make critical, interdisciplinary and substantiated analyses of what goes wrong and what is right, scholars that recognize that decision-making is essentially a complex process in which objectives align, but can also be legitimate yet contradictory, and who dare to go the extra mile – sometimes a bit with their feet in the mud – by formulating policy recommendations and also participating in policy itself in the European Commission, cabinets, intergovernmental organizations and even media companies. Caroline’s students now work within policy institutions, media companies, international conglomerates, the cultural sector, NGO’s and the educational field. She kept in touch with a lot of them and continued to push them to excel.
More than a 'Caroline Pauwels butterfly effect' emerged. Large ripples, waves and sometimes even a tsunami can be seen in the water. That may sound arrogant coming from one of her former pupils, but I honestly believe that Caroline established a power house in media policy and economics research at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and beyond. The last ten years of her career she was often absent from international scientific conferences, albeit that she was, together with Professor Peter Humphreys, vice-chair of ECREA’s Communication Law and Policy Section for several years; Professor Katharine Sarikakis was acting as a chair in the same period. But that nonattendance is what happens when you focus on the collective.
In 2016, Caroline became Rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. She became ‘commander in chief’. A bit against all odds. She was a communication scientist, a woman, young, and spirited. Her feistiness, clear vision on the future of the university and unpretentious care about the entire staff were convincing though. She got elected gaining a majority vote in all university groups that are allowed to vote (professors, other academic staff, supporting staff, academic hospital, students). Her motto: ‘break down the walls’. Caroline wanted a university that got rid of its inferiority complex compared with the bigger universities in Ghent and Leuven. She cherished our home in the capital of Belgium. She fought to break down the walls between the university and the city, between the disciplines within the university, between science and the arts, etc. The annual organization of Difference Day to celebrate press freedom, weKONEKT.brussels (an initiative successfully moving the university to places in Brussels), and Theater aan Zee (an arts festival at the Belgian coast in which Caroline and the university played a major role) are but a few cases in point.
The university got rebranded, telling future students the worlds needs them. Possibilism. Yes, we can!
In 2020, Caroline got re-elected as Rector of the university. There were no other candidates. She obtained over 90% of the votes. At that point, she was already diagnosed with cancer, but convinced she could continue working, which she did until February, 23, 2022 when her illness prevented her from doing the job she loved, from doing the job that, to her, was never a job but a passion.
During the Covid pandemic, Caroline – more so than any other head of any other university in Belgium – concentrated much of her efforts on the psychological and material welbeing of students. She created a fund that aids students in difficulties. It was one of her ambitions to make the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, the most diverse university in Flanders, a more inclusive university. Of course, she could not accomplish that entirely but she laid the foundation for a university where talent matters most, regardless any impediments students may encounter. In her final arrangements, she instructed the university to ask people to contribute to the fund instead of paying for flowers and other tokens of appreciation for her. Students first. People who want to support students who are struggling financially, materially, socially or psychologically can do so by making a donation to the Caroline Pauwels Relief Fund for students: account number BE51 0013 6779 3562 with the message GIFT FO7. If you want to add some words on Caroline, share a memory with her children and family, you can do so here https://www.vub.be/register/caroline-pauwels
Academic careers are not succesful because a scholar publishes a lot of web-of-science articles and books (she did), attracts big amounts of research funds (she did) and has an astronomously high H-index (not sure she bothered to register for that). Their career is meaningful when they had impact (not to be mistaken with impact factor). Caroline had a tremendous impact on the university and all its people.
She had an impact on Brussels, which no longer felt the ugly ducklin of cities in Belgium. Caroline was born in the village of Sint Niklaas. She studied Philosophy in Antwerp and later on Communication Sciences in Brussels. She loved Brussels and the city loved her. The university is located on the outskirts of Brussels and she connected it with the city. She contacted companies to work closer with the university, also for internships, but even more so to reflect on society, education, genuine corporate responsibility and inclusion. CEO’s, museums, politicians, the royal family, civil society organizations, … reached out to her to reflect jointly on contemporary issues of society. And besides all of that, Caroline talked with people, basically with everyone that crossed her path from the taxi driver in Leeds over the cleaning lady of the university campus to undergraduate and graduate students. It is remarkable how many people hold fond memories of Caroline, people she met only once or twice. She made an impression on all of them.
Caroline appeared in the media, not because she was keen to do so but because they asked her. They did not invite her because she had a pointy one liner or would be provocative for the sole reason of being inflammatory and confrontational, but because she was an authentic and empathic voice of reason, nuance and possibilism. And on top of that, as one commentator in the Belgian press wrote, her smile never broke.
Caroline was not a saint. Some depict her like that. She would fiercely object the idea. She was not perfect. She could be very chaotic. I recall the dinner parties she organized at her house for her Ph.D. students. We, at some point more than 10 people, never had dinner before 10pm. But the atmosphere was always warm, welcoming and supportive. She had very high standards and her ideas always grew bigger and bigger and bigger. At times, that stressed out the people around her. However, those ideas tended to work out very well, also because she had the ability and flair to connect many people to work together on the achievement of overly ambitious concepts. She often proved us wrong.
This is not an obituary from a distance. It is not an annotated overview of Caroline Pauwels’ many publications. I wrote this with great sadness for the loss of the mentor, friend and confidant that Caroline was to me. And while I am grateful for the simple fact that she was in my life and that she made a difference for so many people, including myself, I am not ready yet to let go.
She made a difference. She broke down the walls.
Director of Public Value, Talent & Organization, Flemish Radio and Television Organization (VRT)
Associate Professor Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)
* I based this section on a contribution I wrote for a book in which several authors (academic and non academic) explain why they considered Caroline to be the deserved 2021 winner of the Arkprijs van het vrije woord, which is a prestigious price awarded by an independent jury to people that have defended freedom of thinking and merit recognition for that.